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How to get away with breaking the rules like Boris Johnson

A handy guide to wriggling out of accountability like the prime minister fending off a report by Sue Gray

Seth Thévoz close-up
Seth Thévoz
25 May 2022, 4.58pm

After more than five months of waiting, Sue Gray’s ‘partygate’ report has been published. And the 60-page document (three of whose pages are, admittedly, blank) doesn’t pull its punches.

But throughout partygate, the prime minister has seemed quietly confident he can survive this. That may be because he has form in avoiding the consequences of his actions.

If you, too, are considering breaching a series of regulations that you personally set, this handy guide shows how you can weather the resultant political storm.

1) Avoid an independent investigation

It wasn’t meant to be like this. There had been calls for an independent inquiry into partygate, which Johnson managed to deflect, by keeping the investigation in-house. Instead of going for a judge-led inquiry – the normal route for an independent investigation – he commissioned Sue Gray, a career civil servant who ultimately works for him.

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But any hopes Gray would offer up a ‘whitewash’ have been dashed: she ended up delivering a scathing report: “The senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility.”

So the first stage of Johnson’s survival strategy has clearly backfired.

2) Brazen it out

Johnson has done this so many times before, it was little surprise he did it again, with a bullish performance in Parliament. Previous prime ministers might have resigned at the suggestion of lying to Parliament, but Johnson is no stranger to this.

He had already had to apologise to Parliament multiple times before partygate – most famously, for nine different breaches of parliamentary rules in a year. Johnson’s default is to mumble an apology, and then carry on as before, launching into a gung-ho attack on his opponents within minutes. And that is exactly what he did today, replacing humility with accusations against Keir Starmer over ‘beergate’.

There are signs that ministers had expected this strategy: last night, that was exactly what they were already tweeting.

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3) Find scapegoats

Johnson’s aides have previously found themselves carrying the can for the boss. It was unsurprising that even before Number 10 had seen Gray’s report, journalists were being briefed that cabinet secretary Simon Case was likely to be sacked.

Today’s response was in keeping with that, as Johnson insisted that he had no idea that the parties he attended went on for so long.

Johnson told MPs “the entire senior staff has changed. There is a new chief of staff”, and that many of the culprits were no longer in post. This was only partly true, as relatively few have resigned. Some have been reshuffled; others have moved on to other roles. Even among those who resigned, Johnson’s former private secretary Martin Reynolds is reportedly being lined up for the British ambassadorship to Saudi Arabia.

4) Trust the police to keep out of politics

Johnson was in real peril with the police probe, and will be relieved it is now over, with only one fine for him – even though 126 fines were issued to 83 individuals, a sizeable percentage of the 400 people who work in 10 Downing Street.

Former Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner Brian Paddick has suggested that the police were probably reluctant to upset Number 10. This has prompted the Good Law Project to launch legal action today.

There is no evidence of any pressure brought to bear on the force; but, historically, police forces have been very, very reluctant to investigate senior politicians – see, for instance, the long-standing failure to probe election spending returns. The same holds true of Starmer’s ‘beergate’ woes.

The Met, when asked why it had not issued more penalties, simply said: “We are not adding to our last statement.”

5) Have colleagues in high places

The biggest threat to Johnson is the accusation that he lied to Parliament. This is a medium-term problem – it will not be resolved today.

The real danger is from Parliament’s powerful Privileges Committee, which has the power to force him out as an MP, if it finds he lied to the House. But its members will typically deliberate for months.

While the group has a Labour chair, Chris Bryant, it also has a majority of Conservative MPs. Two of the six MPs on the committee previously backed a bid to throw out due process and save Johnson’s ally Owen Paterson after he’d broken lobbying rules.

The ‘wild card’ is Tory MPs. They could trigger a vote to oust him at any time

6) Distract

Expect reminders of the war in Ukraine, and major new policy announcements – the government has already suggested an energy policy roll-out as soon as tomorrow. Johnson has form in distracting from his troubles, so this is all too predictable.

The ‘wild card’ is Tory MPs. They could trigger a vote to oust him at any time: Labour leader Keir Starmer and SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford challenged them to do this today, although both have been saying this for months.

Most Tory MPs have toed the line and publicly defended Johnson. But this month’s drubbing in council elections showed real anger in many of their constituencies, and many will be weighing up whether Johnson has lost his magic touch with voters.

The threshold for starting a contest is quite low – 15% of Tory MPs must submit letters to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee.

But triggering a vote is one thing – winning is another. If Johnson hangs on in any vote, then Tory party rules say he cannot face another no-confidence vote for at least another year. What some Tory MPs are fearing is that, if they botch the timing of an attempt to remove Boris Johnson, it could leave him more secure than ever.

7) Prorogue Parliament

Of course, for Johnson to face a no-confidence vote, there would have to be MPs in the Commons in the first place.

Ensuring otherwise sounds a little far-fetched, but sending his opponents home is exactly what the prime minister did in 2019.

After a series of defeats over his Brexit deal, Johnson prorogued Parliament – marking one of the most controversial chapters of his premiership. The move was later ruled unlawful and unanimously struck down by the Supreme Court, but the prime minister yet again escaped sanction – and successfully delayed Parliament from scrutinising his government’s actions.

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